The history and exact nature of 4'33" are shrouded in enigma, mystery, and ambiguity, which seems odd for so famous a piece from only sixty years ago; but it is worth emphasizing that 4'33" became famous rather slowly. Cage's 1961 book of essays Silence, which vastly expanded his reputation, mentions the piece only twice, and never by title, but as "my silent piece." Not until a decade or two later did it become the central icon of Cage's reputation.
We see the basis for the division into three movements here in the original program from the premiere at the Maverick Concert Hall just outside Woodstock, New York, on August 29, 1952.
The question becomes even murkier when we go back four years earlier to a lecture Cage gave at Vassar on February 28, 1948. On that date he announced some upcoming plans:
I have... several new desires (two may seem absurd, but I am serious about them): first, to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to the Muzak Co. It will be 3 or 4 1/2 minutes long - these being the standard lengths of "canned" music, and its title will be "Silent Prayer." It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape or fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibly.
Here, four and a half years before 4'33", we have the first announcement of a plan to write a piece consisting of silence. (The other "absurd" plan is to write a piece for twelve radios, which he did in 1951.) Note, moreover, that Silent Prayer is not really 4'33", and is confusingly described. "It will open," Cage says, "with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape or fragrance of a flower." How can a silent piece open with any idea at all? And again, "The ending will approach imperceptibly."
And note the intention to sell the Silent Prayer to the Muzak corporation. The Muzak company was founded in 1934, its name a combination of music and Kodak. The practice of piping Muzak into restaurants, office buildings, subways, and other public spaces grew phenomenally in the late 1930s and '40s, and many people, professional musicians in particular, were horrified by it. Studies found that Muzak in the workplace relieved worker fatigue and lowered absenteeism, but many people considered it not only a degrading misuse of music but an invasion of privacy. Lawsuits resulted, and in 1952 - the year of 4'33" - the case against the Muzak corporation went to the Supreme Court. Muzak won. Writing for the majority, Justice Harold Burton wrote that broadcasting music was "not inconsistent with public convenience, comfort and safety.'" Justice Felix Frankfurter, however, hated Muzak so much that he felt it necessary to recuse himself, and Justice William O. Douglas, in his minority opinion, stated that, "The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom."
Cage's politics in the 1930s were highly anti-corporate, and he wrote that "there seemed to be nothing good about anything big in America." So Cage's original idea for 4'33" was to sell it to Muzak to create a respite from corporate-imposed forced listening. [emphasis added] Muzak at the time was played from 78 rpm vinyl records, which could hold about three minutes of music on a 10-inch disc, or four and a half minutes on a 12-inch disc, thus accounting for the lengths of time Cage predicted for his Silent Prayer. So think about this: in 1948 Cage speculated about writing a four-and-a-half-minute silent composition.
For folks with more ... traditionalist aesthetics, John Cage in general and 4'33" in particular can be a popular punching bag. Francis Schaeffer zeroed in on Cage in one of his books about half a century ago. Roger Scruton has regarded Cage as a charlatan, more or less. I like some of the prepared piano music, actually. Cage isn't going to become one of my lifelong favorites (Ellington and Haydn and Shostakovich and J. S. Bach have a few of those slots). All the same, aesthetically conservative Christian types tend too quickly to misrepresent where Cage was coming from. It's one thing to not really agree with Cage on matters of aesthetics, politics, religion or sexuality or any other topic, it's another to not even bother to consider the possible background that led to the publication of his most notorious piece.
Reading that Cage's piece was at least partly inspired by a loathing of Muzak and background music being unilaterally pumped out of speakers in public settings might show us that Cage might have a couple of points in common with some of his right-side critics ... unless folks who tilt right in aesthetics and politics WANT an endless rotation of Mariah Carey and Journey singles in the grocery store.
This is not, to be very polite about it, the kind of historical background about Cage's work you might come across in a Francis Schaeffer book. Even though I was strongly influenced by Schaeffer's writings twenty years ago I think it's long overdue that evangelicals in general and Reformed Christians in particular formulate a way that Christians, let alone Christians interested in the arts, interact with arts history in a way that can, where necessary, set Schaeffer's polemics off to the side. I've seen some ridiculous claims made by Christians over the last fifteen years, such as that the major/minor key system is "robustly Trinitarian". Now whether or not I completely agree with Iannis Xenakis' complaint that the church modes were misunderstood as scalar patterns in diatonic terms rather than prevailing patterns within hexachordal ranges ... eh ... I'm rusty on Xenakis by a long, long shot.
The point is, basically, that too many people in the era of the internet want the shortcuts to their foregone conclusions. We can do better than that, and in this case I think that what would be fair to John Cage's music, whether you happen to like it or hate it, is to move beyond some of the facile tales that have emerged around it. With the 50th anniversary of Schaeffer's trilogy coming along fairly soon one of the things I've been trying to do is to sort of reassess the strong points and weak points of some of the things he wrote. Some of the weaknesses are spectacular while some of the more salient points were awkwardly under-developed.